NORTH DAKOTA (KXNET) — The need for foster families in North Dakota is prevalent.

As KX News has reported in just the last year, the number of foster parents has dropped significantly in the state and experts say the need is greater than ever.

But as Alysia Huck shares, the challenges go beyond a lack of foster homes.

As of September 30, there were 1,516 kids in the North Dakota foster care system. That number has continued to grow over the past decade, and the shortage of foster families has also continued to grow, which all contributes to what some say is the biggest challenge.

“I think just the stability of the system. And so we know that for every ten homes we license, nine at some point will not do foster care. So I think the challenge is really the inconsistency or the inability to know what’s coming down the road,” said Director of Children and Family Services Cory Pedersen.

There are multiple types of foster homes: regular foster care, treatment foster care, respite care, host homes, and shelter and emergency care.

So where is the greatest need?

“We need all levels of foster care. I wouldn’t want to pinpoint one over the other,” Pedersen said.

Shelter and emergency care provide short-term care during a family emergency or when a child is removed from a home.

This type of care accounts for approximately 3-4% of all foster kids, but Pedersen explains that when you have problems here, it can clog the entire foster care system.

“We know, statistically, emergency kids coming in are going down, but we’re not getting kids in the system home. We’re taking longer to get them back to their parents, back to kin. So, getting them to permanency, which in our world is reunification with parents or family adoption,” Pedersen explained.

And part of the reason for kids staying in the system longer goes back to mental health, and the shortage of services in the state to help these kids.

“In an immediate need, if you don’t have the right service at the right time, you really aren’t doing the right things for kids. And I think that’s probably our biggest rub in the state right now. It does put panic in workers’ minds, in family’s minds saying, ‘my child is suicidal now, what do I do?'” added Pedersen.

And while mental health services for kids are lacking across the state, it is even more difficult for foster families living in rural areas.

Fewer foster families are willing or even equipped to foster kids with mental health challenges.

“We do have some gaps in the certified world of shelter care. You know, in the Devil’s Lake area, the tribal entities, and Jamestown regions, you know, they’re not enriched with nonprofits. And so, it’s tough for those communities, even though they’re large and have a high need to really get some traction,” said Pedersen.

Amanda Evans lives in Williston and has been fostering kids for several years, and says she’s experienced a number of challenges when trying to get kids in the foster care system the help they need.

“No matter how much you try to advocate for these kids to get the therapy that they need or just anything, they put it back on you to do the work. And then when you do the work, if it’s not something that they agree with, they’ll come up with more things for you too,” explained Evans.

And Evans experienced this firsthand.

“I had two other kids in my home. They had been in my home for six weeks. And I had told them from day one, ‘Why do these children not have therapy? They have trauma, they’ve been removed from their home. Why do they not have therapy?'” said Evans.

According to the North Dakota Foster Parent Handbook, a Health Track screening must be completed within 30 days of a child entering foster care. The Health Tracks screening may determine whether the child will need a referral for services.

But Evans believes mental health is not given the same attention as other health aspects of a foster child.

“I’ve been told that it is a state guideline that within 30 days, a child entering foster care has to have a dental exam and a doctor’s exam. Those are the only things I have ever seen done in a timely manner,” Evans explained.

Overall, Pedersen says banding together as one and communicating are what needs to happen in the foster care system.

“If we don’t start sharing, it really comes to be a siloed approach, and I think that’s the issue,” Pedersen said.

Challenges in the foster care system are not the same across the state; however, there are 19 Human Service Zones in North Dakota, and each zone oversees child welfare in the counties they serve. Some believe the zones have too much control and lack oversight.

Alysia Huck will continue to dive deeper into some of the challenges facing one particular zone, causing some to ask, “What are the rights of the child?”